“Off the Rails” screamed the front pages of newspapers from across the north of England over the last week, as they joined together to demand Theresa May “get a grip” on the crisis on the railways that is causing misery for millions of people, and looks set to continue for weeks and months to come. And they were absolutely right to do so.
But the problem is so much more than just the failure to introduce a new timetable properly. What we’ve witnessed over the last few weeks, months and yes – years, is the total failure of Westminster and Whitehall to contemplate what a proper, twenty first century national transport strategy might look like, or to deliver joined up Government, or to focus on what really matters to improve people’s daily lives.
The Government’s go ahead for a third runway at Heathrow is a case in point. In April, Energy Minister Claire Perry made a welcome announcement that the UK will review its climate targets. Without question, they need to be strengthened. And yet, this week, Chris Grayling announced plans for a third runway at Heathrow without even mentioning the words climate change. This, in 2018. His environmental illiteracy beggars belief.
What we desperately need right now is one, joined up national strategy for transport and infrastructure that sets out to improve people’s quality of life right across the country. It should exploit twenty-first century technologies to improve connectivity, rather than 1970s thinking from old-fashioned sector lobby groups desperate for fat contracts to build mega-projects.
Problem is, politicians love nothing more than the opportunity to wear high-vis. George Osbourne seemed to have a positive fetish for the stuff (always brand new, without a speck of mud on it, in his case). But these vanity mega-projects aren’t going to solve our transport needs.
It’s this kind of thinking that has led to the disaster that is HS2; the “High-Speed” rail line that is promising to shave 30 minutes of journey times from London to Birmingham. When originally conceived, we were told that HS2 would reduce the need for domestic flights and so save carbon emissions. Yesterday, that was fully exposed as the lie it’s always been when Chris Grayling promised that some of the new landing slots created by the third runway will be reserved for more – yes more - domestic flights.
HS2 will cost the UK taxpayer at least £60bn, probably more. Although the Third Runway at Heathrow will, itself, be paid for by private money, the cost to the public purse in additional road and rail spending around the airport is expected to cost around £10bn.
That’s £70bn on transport infrastructure that will concentrate ever more economic activity in London and the South East. And yet, across rest of country, rail chaos and appalling local infrastructure means we can’t trust our trains to get us from A to B on time, forcing millions of us on to the road.
As everyone who commutes to work knows: what matters is saving 10 mins every day, not 27 mins a couple of times a year on a work trip to the capital.
The things that will make the biggest difference to people’s lives won’t always provide the best photo opp: upgrading existing railings, introducing new faster rolling stock, electrifying our rail routes, introducing better buses, and walking and cycling infrastructure that makes people feel safe to get out of their cars.
Just think how far £70bn could go on transforming transport infrastructure and connectivity in the North. But if HS2 and Heathrow go ahead as planned, chances are Whitehall will be saying ‘no more money left’ – as they’ve already done for electrification.
We only have to look across the channel to see that solutions are possible: from fast, efficient European trains, to safe Dutch cycle routes; from free bus travel in parts of France, to free public transport in Estonia. Our European neighbours are showing that it is possible to make public transport work for people and the environment.
HS2, more runways and more roads – all of these do nothing to address commuter misery or climate chaos. What’s lacking is a proper National Transport Strategy. One that delivers for people on their daily commute. One that helps to rebalance south to north. And one that recognises the role that transport - as the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK – can play in preventing runaway climate change.
It’s time to ditch the white elephants like HS2 and invest in cleaner, better public transport for everyone. It might not be sexy, but it will make our lives happier.